Avon Barksdale, kingpin and target, lives in two worlds. He is like that famous optical illusion that shows an image of either an old lady or a young woman, depending on how you look at it, but never both. He is a much more badass version of that image, sure, but similarly hard to define, similarly hard to pin down to a single interpretation. The more you look the less certain you are of what you are looking at.
On the one hand, Avon is the object of everybody’s attention. To the people on the street, he is the boss, a man to be feared and respected, obeyed and protected. To the cops, he is the main prize, the man they want to put in bracelets. And he is in the forefront of the minds of the audience from the moment McNulty utters his name in Judge Phelan’s office.
On the other hand, Avon is an unknown entity, the x in an algebraic equation. He is a cipher that must be decoded to be understood. The entire detail is focused on a form of codebraking, an attempt to gather and interpret information about Avon and his organization in order to put together a case strong enough to get a conviction. For that very reason, a large portion of Avon’s energy goes into masking any information that might lead to an arrest. Throughout the first four episodes, he is largely successful at this. He doesn’t appear in public, even for his nephew’s murder trial. The police don’t lay eyes on him or hear his voice. By the third episode, they are so frustrated by their inability to get any information on him that McNulty jokingly suggest that he might, in fact, be a middle-aged white man. When they finally get a picture of him, it is grainy, small, and old.
Prior to Episode Five, “The Pager,” the audience doesn’t have a much clearer picture of him. Throughout the first four episodes, Avon only appears occasionally, and when he does, his conversations are strictly business-related. There are two scenes where he discusses the importance of family with D’Angelo, but even this seems business-related, as the concept of “family” is the most effective way to keep his nephew loyal and obedient (which becomes painfully apparent in the season finale). Other than these two scenes where Uncle Avon attempts to mentor his young nephew, the only other time we see him is when he discusses revenge on Omar while shooting a basketball (so, okay, we do know that he likes sports: hoops and boxing). Other than that, all we know of Avon is what we get second-hand through the scraps of information the detail gathers and the stories that D’Angelo tells in the pit. It is fitting that our image of him only starts to come into focus when that the detectives begin to get a clearer picture of the workings of Avon’s crew.
The opening scene of “The Pager” offers our first direct glimpse into Avon outside of the context of his empire, but what it ends up revealing is a fascinating paradox: while the focus of Season 1 is the attempt to put Avon behind bars, the very power that makes him such a crucial target already makes him a prisoner in his own life.
The scene begins early in the morning, as Avon finishes getting ready for another day of work. The opening shot shows him in a bathroom, fully dressed, listening to a morning show coming from a radio in another room. The camera gives a brief glimpse of Avon before panning right to see his reflection in the mirror. In fact, there are three reflections, a cubist portrait created by the space between the two panels of the mirror, which splits his image, and a third reflection created by a circular makeup mirror. He looks at himself and bites his lips in a grimace, and the fragmented image tells us why— even in this private place, a place of self-examination, he is a man divided, fragmented by his different responsibilities and the burden of representing so much to so many people. Here, alone at the start of the day, he appears to allow himself a brief moment of pain and attempted self-reflection before going out into the world where he needs to be the strong, fearless leader.
The image also suggests another reason for Avon’s unhappiness: his paranoia. The way that the individual Avon gets split into three different images is a perfect metaphor for the fractured perspective of a paranoid individual. Most people can look at the image like the old lady/young woman illusion or Wittgenstein’s famous duckrabbit and see one or the other, but never both (try it—if you think you are seeing both, chances are you are just switching back and forth rapidly).
But the paranoid mind has the ability to see one object as two things simultaneously, which is why paranoia is so often associated with seeing harmless things as threats. The man in the deli is really a spy, the moon landing is also a Hollywood set, and the dog next door is a spiritual advisor. In fact, this aspect of paranoia fascinated Salvador Dali. The documentary The Dali Dimension recounts a meeting between Dali and Freud. The great surrealist refused to discuss his art with the great psychoanalyst; he only wanted to talk about paranoia. A quick look at any of Dali’s paintings shows why—the dreamlike, ambiguous figures draw the mind into two directions and force a sense of paranoia in the viewer.
In the scene that opens The Wire’s fifth episode, Avon displays paranoia from the moment he hears the phone ring in the other room. He walks out to see who is calling just as Chantay, his girl (one of his girls, at least), hangs up. “Who was that?” he asks in an agitated tone. “They hung up without saying.” “They hung up without saying?” he repeats, picking up the phone to see if he recognizes the number and tossing it back on the bed when he doesn’t.
The simple explanation of a wrong number doesn’t sit well in Avon’s paranoid mind. This is a man for whom something as innocent as a wrong number can be a precursor of an arrest or something far worse. In fact, the scene portrays Avon as a man overwhelmed with fear, even when dealing with the most innocent acts.
The next thing he does is look out of the blinds, spotting Wee-Bey waiting to pick him. Avon looks up and down the streets like a soldier about to leave the safety of a protected position to head into fire from an unseen sniper. After gathering his keys, his money, and his pager, he leaves without saying goodbye to Chantay, but not without glancing out of the window a second time.
The perspective shifts to the outside, signaled by the change from the talk radio show in the apartment to the upbeat song playing in Bey’s car. We see Avon in the doorway, but he doesn’t exit. Instead, he signals to Wee-Bey, who looks back to see two young men talking. Bey ominously cocks his gun and reverses the car as the men seem to obliviously walk away while shouldering what appears to be hockey equipment. It is only when the car returns to its original post that Avon comes out, jogging so as to minimize his time exposed in plain sight.
This whole sequence highlights just how deep Avon’s paranoia goes. Everything is a potential threat, from a wrong number to two guys standing around and chatting. But while this seems extreme, we also have to acknowledge that Avon could be right. Maybe the phone is some law enforcement agent checking to see where he is. In the previous episode, we see Freamon place just such a call to D’Angelo’s pager. And maybe the two men are from a rival gang, setting up to ambush Avon and take over his territory. A similar attempt on his life goes down later in the season. It is unlikely that Avon has ever heard of Delmore Schwartz, but he definitely understands the poet’s famous dictum: “Even paranoids have real enemies.” Avon is all-too aware of his enemies, and this awareness makes him paranoid of everything that lies outside of the bubble world he has created for himself.
This idea gets played out further in the conversation with Wee-Bey that takes up the rest of the scene. The conversation is tense, with Avon giving orders motivated by his fear and paranoia and Wee-Bey passively protesting before relenting under pressure from his boss. This shows not only Avon’s fear but also his power, his ability to assert his will and to make new rules based on that fear. First, he tells Wee-Bey to remove the phone lines from Chantay’s apartment. When Bey protests, Avon says nothing. He just shoots a withering look, and the soldier backs down.
Avon doesn’t leave it there. He pushes the issue by asking “You got a problem?” Wee-Bey, a good soldier but no toady, replies candidly by saying “it seem we just goin’ past careful, man…like we paranoid and shit.” They pull up to a pay phone, and Avon responds to Bey’s critique with another moment of “goin’ past careful.” He insists on using a different phone. Bey scoffs, and Avon finally explains himself: “You act like ain’t nobody out to get me, man. I got no motherfuckin’ enemies?” Bey relents and the scene ends.
Avon is the boss, so his viewpoint is obviously going to prevail, but maybe Wee-Bey has a point. His phrase “past careful” is suggestive, especially considering the source. Bey is a true soldier, somebody who understands the game. This is set up from the pilot episode, when scolds D’Angelo for talking in the car, thus breaking a rule most likely set up by his paranoid boss. From the other side of the law, Freamon says “it’s a discipline,” when describing the Barksdales’ use of pagers. Both Lester and Bey understand that a crew is only as strong as it is careful, particularly when communication is concerned.
In this scene, though, Wee-Bey seems to feel that there is a line where careful becomes paranoid, and Avon is crossing it. Wee-Bey doesn’t see the point in removing phone lines from Chantay’s apartment any more than he sees the point in chasing away innocent men or using different pay phones. Perhaps he feels that too much caution defeats the very purpose of being a successful player in the drug game, but in the end, it is not his call. Avon is the boss, so he gets to set the line, and he has obviously decided that there is no such thing as “past careful.”
While Bey never states it explicitly, there is a deeper problem with Avon’s paranoia: the heavy personal toll it takes. As Avon rightly argues, he does have real enemies, and as a result, there is a need to protect himself and the entire organization. In such a situation, it is always better to err on the side of caution, particularly since the enemies are most likely both powerful and invisible. Later in the season, Stringer even tells Avon “we need to build a wall around you.” This scene reveals that Avon is already very much walled in. But while a wall can protect it also imprisons, just as castling in chess can protect the king, but can also trap him.
It is hard to consider somebody with Avon’s power a prisoner, but he has to sacrifice some of the essential aspects of life. The most important thing that Avon has to protect is his information. The police need information to arrest and convict him. His enemies need information in order to execute a successful hit or to challenge him for territory. Information is vulnerable in two ways. First, it is vulnerable to interception, and second, it is vulnerable to interpretation. There are ways to protect against each of these weak spots, but each one takes away something essential from Avon.
One of the biggest challenges facing a widespread drug ring is exchanging information in a private, exclusive way. One way the Barksdales deal with this is to use protected means of communication. We see several types of communication throughout the scene, and Avon approaches each one with a level of discomfort proportional to its vulnerability. He is okay with face to face conversations with Bey and Chantay, as well as the one-way communications like the radio and the coded, non-verbal beeper message. On the other hand he is terrified of the open two-way communication of the telephone, where anybody can call any number, and the police can listen in. He wants to strip this vulnerability from his life so badly that he orders the phone removed from Chantay’s apartment, even if, as she remarks, he never uses it in the first place. By reducing the number of people he can communicate with, Avon also reduces his world to an increasingly-small cadre of associates and shuts out everybody else.
Even if his enemies can intercept his communications, they still need to decipher a meaning in them. I will go into the nature of codebreaking more when I discuss the opening scene of Episode 7 (“One Arrest”), but decoding always requires the ability to discover hidden patterns. Avon shows that he is aware of this when he refuses to use the same phone that he used a day earlier. Once again, he is absolutely correct in this fear—using the same phone too often gives his enemies a pattern which they can exploit. Freamon later comments that the crew is “a little lazy,” using the same pay phones too often. Repetition and routine develop patterns, and patterns expose information. The only way to avoid this is to eliminate all patterns.
But when a person gives up patterns, they give up something deeper: a consistent, stable lifestyle. While routines can lead to a boring, stagnant life, they also create some of the most essential personal moments, from eating habits to rituals of waking up and going to sleep. Perhaps the most important manifestations of routines are stable relationships. For Avon, this loss is shown most clearly in the physical presence of Chantay and the ghostly presence of another one of Avon’s girls: Dierdre Kresson. During both the previous episode and the this one, we learn of Avon’s dating habits. As D’Angelo tells the pit boys and Dierdre’s friend Tywanda tells Jimmy and Bunk, Avon likes to keep a few women “around the way.” For at least one of these women, this leads to death. This promiscuous lifestyle may well be natural for a powerful young man looking to show his dominance in all aspects of his life, but it is also a requirement for somebody as paranoid as Avon, where any long-term relationship might put him in jeopardy. And from Kima, we find that he has no known address. As powerful as Avon is, as high as he has climbed through the ranks of the Baltimore drug trade, in the end he is just as much a homeless, disconnected drifter as Bubbles.
The idea that it is perilous to be king is nothing new. The title character of Shakespeare’s Henry IV part 2 famously said “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” (a line often misquoted, even by Freamon in Season Three, as “heavy is the head that wears the crown”). People like Bodie strive to be king. They have the perception that, as Mel Brooks says, “It’s good to be the king.” But as Avon shows in this scene, this very power a king craves creates a black hole into which he himself disappears. When we finally get a peek into Avon’s personal life, we find that he has no personal life at all. He lives his life paralyzed by the fear that a single mistake will bring everything crashing down. In this sense, D’Angelo’s epigraph from the previous episode, “the king stay the king,” seems less like praise and more like a life sentence.
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